Saturday, April 27, 2013

Witness against Torture and the hunger strikers at Guantanamo

I received many responses to “Torture is a war crime not a mistake.” See here. Perhaps the most important in terms of organizing against these atrocities is the letter below for Jeremy Varon, a teacher of history at Eugene Lang College at the New School, about the activites of Witness Against Torture in support of the hunger strikers at Guantanamo.

My friend Peter Minowitz continues – it is the war on terror mentality driven by fear and unjustifiable trust in authority – to apologize for Obama, whom, of course, we both like. Peter ignores the immense and continuing criminality – there is no other way to describe it – of American militarism. So consider the following facts about who is in Guantanamo and what is being done to them.

1. Obama promised to shut Guantanamo. He did so because the wretched barbarism and contempt for the rule of law and decency of Richard Cheney and George W. Bush were and are made visible, unmistakably, there.

2. Recall: Guantanamo is a US imperial outpost stolen from Cuba and the then powerful imperial rival Spain in the war of 1898 (something that might make racists happy, but no decent person, upon reflection, would feel much but nauseated by; it was a time when US troops committed genocide in the Phillipines, and the like).

3. Obama worked hard to close Guantanamo, even getting out small numbers of prisoners to the Marianas and other places that could be persuaded, in exchange for American aid, to take them.

4. Congress blocked doing so, the Republicans because they are racists and cowards, and the Democrats, because they fear to lose out in elections due to baiting on “national security,” also cowardly...

This exaggerated fear, which I have called the right wing two step of ordinary politics in the war complex, short of revolt from below, is responsible for much American craziness – given that we have a trillion dollar war budget, 1280 bases below the radar of public acknowledgment and scrutiny, a kept mainstream press featuring mainly generals to comment on war as in the run up to and orchestration of the aggression in Iraq, carefully chosen “academics” from the American Enterprise Institute or "responsible" individuals from other think-tanks on CNN, MSNBC and the like, and few of the many articulate and very well qualified critics....Warned of by Dr. King in his speech about Vietnam, militarism along with global warming in which “Congress” is, largely, in thrall to the oil companies, may destroy, in our children's lifetimes, the conditions of habitability of the earth for much of our species.

Thus, the protests on behalf of these prisoners, particularly the many innocent ones, are protests on behalf of humanity.

5. These prisoners have often been held for 10 or 11 years with only their names available to the public.

6. After being tortured – and after still being tortured under Obama during their desperate hunger strikes, for example by forced feeding by “doctors” (no Guantanamo doctor who has participated in force feeding should be allowed, unchallenged, to practice medicine again in the United States) – see here – no information has been released about the changes against any of them (trust me, trust me, says the Cheney-Bush-Obama regime about Guantanamo).

7. I repeat: there is no public information about the criminality or dangerousness of the people who are held there. That Cheney said “They are the worst of the worst” reflects the craziness of “going to the dark side”. After protests from many governments as well as ordinary people internationally, more than 600 of the original 800 prisoners have been released. Moazzem Begg, a Briton of Pakistani origin, was kept as Enemy Combattant (the title of his recent book) and tortured. He was at Bagram and was, as an English speaker, relied on by Pentagon investigators about the murder by American soldiers of Mr. Dilawar, a taxi driver (see "Taxi to the Dark Side"). Begg had planned to fight in Kashmir where there is enormous oppression of Muslims by the state of India (Kashmir was the "K" in the original "Pakistan.") After pressure from London, Bush released Begg to British authorities, warning how dangerous he was. The British spoke with Begg, and released him within 5 hours of his arriving in London...

Some are said to have joined with Al-Qaida upon leaving Guantanamo. Where often previously innocent, the experience of losing many years of one's life and being tortured is likely to make a victim hate the torturers. To accord with the rule of law, some legal process with evidence is needed, not just the word of war making authorities - "commander in chief" or executive power - that there are really criminals, "the worst of the worst" in Guantanamo. Bush finally transferred in 14 people from the even more secret dark sites who may - or may not - be "High Value Suspects."

8. But the real question is whether America has confidence in its own values, the morally decent ones of not empowering a big government in torturing and murder with no checks or oversight or even demand from the "free" media, any explanation.

Again, the powers who deserve morally to be defended like Spain try people in courts of law. The cowards who hide people, often innocent, forever in the dark, refuse to release information about and torture them are rightly regarded by most of the world as crazy and dangerous (I mean you Lindsay Graham and John McCain – people who once seemed to stand against torture – but the criterion applies, and many see it, now even to Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton…).

9. Recall the Pew Poll from 2004 in which 6 per cent of the world thought Saddam the most dangerous leader in the world, 7% Kim Jong-il of South Korea, 1% other – and 84% George W. Bush.

10. The world was so shocked and blown away – me, too – when American democracy then elected the smartest and most decent guy in the room (of Presidential candidates) Barack Obama President of the United States, that it gave America some grace.

11. Obama was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on the hope that he would do something decent.

12. That America not yet bombing Iran – with immense pressure from Netanyahu, Romney and part of the war complex, is an amazing thing. Obama did not do this in a Presidential election and still hasn’t (we need a much stronger movement from below to fight against this – the danger continues…)

The war complex was divided because Obama was President, trying to hold back madness – and not every member of this “indispensable” power is high on hubris or to put it colloquially, insane.

13. A larger Middle East war in the context of the US arming Israel and Israel's fierce oppression of the Palestinians could likely engender use of nuclear weapons – by Israel, the one nuclear armed power in the area, which in such a conflict, might end up quite desperate. There is a limit to how much militarism the Netanyahu/fundamentalist leadership can gin up in Israel, a limit to how long any decent settlement, recognizing the rights, as human beings, of Palestinians and Israeli Jews, can be shunned.

14. But Obama has also resorted to the war criminal policy of blowing up innocents with drones in 6 countries the US is not at war with. Legally speaking (and morally), this is a) aggression on America’s part, and b) the murder of innocents. The Senate in its dilatory way, is just now touching on this issue. Displaying the Bush regime's contempt for law, Obama has sent no representative to testify.

Consider, however, the viral testimony to the Senate of Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni student in America who talks about how his village sees America after a US drone-strike.(h/t Aaron Ney) See and listen here. Please stop and take the time to look into this if you haven’t. The hatred for America engendered by drones is lethal, spreading rapidly and a pure an example of what Chalmers Johnson, making popular an old and rare intelligent CIA idiom, Blowback.

Blowback – counter-actions taken against unwise (usually criminal) American policies which fly below the radar of the bipartisan “consensus” in American policy and are thus hidden from the American people and democratic debate and judgement. This is how, as Richard Clarke, the leadings national security advisor under Presidents since Reagan, aptly, said the US ended up responding to the 9/11 by aggressing against and committing torture in Iraq. It was as if he said, FDR had responded to Pearl Harbor by attacking Mexico…

And he might have added, with lots of indefinite detention and torture adjoined to aggression.

Ordinary people who have suffered terrorization and murder by drone, are likely, some number of them, to want to strike against the United States. And many more will - rightly - detest the United States as the sender from far away of drones that mainly - often overwhelmingly - kill innocents (Bin Laden was not taken out by drone).

I will have a companion post on this.

15. It is true that innocent Yemenis – after being tortured and held for over 10 years and having hunger strikes unto death and being tortured again for going on hunger strike – may want to hit at the United States if released. After the experience of Guantanamo, some innocent people, when they recover have apparently chosen to fight the United States. Yet it is unlikely.

Maher Arar, the Syrian-Canadian engineer whom Bush sent to be tortured in a coffin-size cell in Syria for 10 months, was found by Syrian “intelligence” to have exactly nothing to do with Al-Qaida or politics. He was sent back to Canada, a broken man (one who could not, for a long time, play with his children). He never intended to and will do nothing against the US. Listen here.

The Canadian government has apologized to Arar and paid damages in a law suit. The Obama administration has so far prevented this Canadian from suing for being tortured in an American court relying on the Emperor’s New Clothes doctrine of “state secrets.” It attempts to hide from a court what is in the public record, i.e. not secret, by the laughable doctrine of "state secrets."

16. America is powerful but skates, with much bluster among the militarists, on thin ice…


The Times also had a fine editorial yesterday on the real Bush library - and thus a moral commentary on the American Presidents who are celebrating him: "the Stain of Guantanamo." The editors report that they received some criticism - there is a serious tendency toward barbarism and criminality in America - for printing the words of an innocent man who has been tortured there.

It, too, is below.


"Dear Alan,

This is Jeremy Varon, Professor of History, member of Witness Against Torture, and loyal reader of your blog.

Thanks so much for focusing on the grim topic of torture. In one of the snippets you quote a friend lamenting why no one seems to be talking about the current hunger strike at GTMO. OK, there has been a smattering of decent coverage (Chris Hayes, the Nation, the Guardian UK) and aspects of the saga are being reported by the "elite" press. More to the point, my group is deeply mobilized around the hunger strikes, coordinating demos throughout the country, calls to the White House and Southern Command (they actually answer and talk to us [a very good thing]), letter writing to the detainees (you can write them, no idea if they get the letters), a "rolling fast," and so on.

And, word of our actions, through lawyers, is making it, translated into arabic sometimes, to the detainees themselves. Please spend a few minutes to check out and consider alerting your readers that there IS grassroots response to the hunger strikes and all kinds of ways that people of conscience everywhere can tap into various activities.

If you want to talk in more specifics, by email or phone, let me know.



"Monday, April 22, 2013 5:18 PM

photos: &
video coming soon at

Press Release: April 22, 2013

Contact: Jeremy Varon,
Matt Daloisio,

Arrests at Federal Courthouse in NYC as
Hunger Strike at Guantanamo Widens

New York City, April 22: Responding to reports that 84 men — more than half of those imprisoned at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay — are hunger striking to protest their indefinite detention, 12 concerned citizens with Witness Against Torture were arrested at approximately 3pm in a “die-in” on the steps of the Federal Courthouse at Manhattan’s Foley Square (40 Centre Street).

Those arrested, some in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, held signs with names of the men who have already died under US custody at the prison. Fearing that more prisoners could die soon, the protesters are demanding that immediate measures be taken by the Obama administration to close the prison.

The hunger strike, begun on February 6, has reached dire proportions. Following a raid by guards of one of the prison sections (“Camp 6”) on April 13, inmates were newly thrown into solitary confinement and examined by medical staff. As a result, the number of those acknowledged as hunger striking by the US military has sharply climbed. Sixteen of the men are being force fed — a painful practice condemned by human rights organizations and described in testimony from Samir Mukbei published in the New York Times on April 14. More than half of the 166 prisoners at Guantanamo, including some of the hunger strikers, have been “cleared for release” by US authorities.

“The hunger strike,” says Jeremy Varon, an organizer with Witness Against Torture, “is the predictable result of a failed policy of indefinite detention that is morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable. If action is not taken to change that policy, more prisoners will die and our nation’s shame will deepen.”

“I took part in the protest at the Federal Court,” says North Carolina resident Beth Brockman, “because justice is broken when men who our government has no plans to charge or put on trial no harm are held for years.”

“Shaker Aamer, the sole UK citizen still at Guantanamo,” added protestor Brian Hynes, “recently pleaded, ‘I hope I do not die in this awful place. I want to hug my children.’ These words, from a man cleared for release 6 years ago, haunt me. The United States is slowly killing men in a prison that should never have existed. This nightmare must end.”

Since the hunger strike began, Witness Against Torture has been holding vigils and rallies throughout the country, calling the White House and US military, and sending letters to the detained men. Following a 7 day fast in late March, it has organized a “rolling fast” that will continue as long as the hunger strike does, in which more than 100 people nationwide have participated.


The Guantánamo Stain
Published: April 25, 2013

All five living presidents gathered in Texas Thursday for a feel-good moment at the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, which is supposed to symbolize the legacy that Mr. Bush has been trying to polish. President Obama called it a “special day for our democracy.” Mr. Bush spoke about having made “the tough decisions” to protect America. They all had a nice chuckle when President Bill Clinton joked about former presidents using their libraries to rewrite history.

But there is another building, far from Dallas on land leased from Cuba [sic - at gun point], that symbolizes Mr. Bush’s legacy in a darker, truer way: the military penal complex at Guantánamo Bay where Mr. Bush imprisoned hundreds of men after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a vast majority guilty of no crime.

It became the embodiment of his dangerous expansion of executive power and the lawless detentions, secret prisons and torture that went along with them. It is now also a reminder of Mr. Obama’s failure to close the prison as he promised when he took office, and of the malicious interference by Congress in any effort to justly try and punish the Guantánamo inmates.

There are still 166 men there — virtually all of them held without charges, some for more than a decade. More than half have been cleared for release but are still imprisoned because of a law that requires individual Pentagon waivers. The administration eliminated the State Department post charged with working with other countries to transfer the prisoners so those waivers might be issued.

Of the rest, some are said to have committed serious crimes, including terrorism, but the military tribunals created by Mr. Bush are dysfunctional and not credible, despite Mr. Obama’s improvements. Congress long ago banned the transfer of prisoners to the federal criminal justice system where they belong and are far more likely to receive fair trials and long sentences if convicted.

Only six are facing active charges. Nearly 50 more are deemed too dangerous for release but not suitable for trial because they are not linked to any specific attack or because the evidence against them is tainted by torture.

The result of this purgatory of isolation was inevitable. Charlie Savage wrote in The Times on Thursday about a protest that ended in a raid on Camp Six, where the most cooperative prisoners are held. A hunger strike in its third month includes an estimated 93 prisoners, twice as many as were participating before the raid. American soldiers have been reduced to force-feeding prisoners who are strapped to chairs with a tube down their throats.

That prison should never have been opened. It was nothing more than Mr. Bush’s attempt to evade accountability by placing prisoners in another country. The courts rejected that ploy, but Mr. Bush never bothered to fix the problem. Now, shockingly, the Pentagon is actually considering spending $200 million for improvements and expansions clearly aimed at a permanent operation.

Polls show that Americans are increasingly indifferent to the prison. We received a fair amount of criticism recently for publishing on our Op-Ed page a first-person account from one of the Guantánamo hunger strikers.

But whatever Mr. Bush says about how comfortable he is with his “tough” choices, the country must recognize the steep price being paid for what is essentially a political prison. Just as hunger strikes at the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland indelibly stained Britain’s human rights record, so Guantánamo stains America’s.

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